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The paradox of “no makeup” makeup

“No makeup” makeup claims to be a beauty revolution. But it still plays by the same old rules.

illustration of “no makeup” makeup Sarah Lawrence for Vox

Earlier this year, a new trend called the “boy beat” emerged on the online beauty scene. The look, as conceived by Beyoncé’s makeup artist Sir John, is an androgynous approach to makeup, which he described as “not about covering your flaws or creating new ones [but] more about an unintentional effortless approach to beauty.”

Vlogger Sarah Cheung then took the idea a step further, using makeup to highlight features that are typically thought of as flaws, like stray brow hairs or redness. While the boy beat might seem to invert the traditional purpose of makeup, framing itself as celebrating ordinary appearances instead of concealing them, it means that now even people’s supposed flaws are bound up in beauty trends.

The boy beat is the latest iteration in the beauty world genre of “natural makeup.” The idea became popular online in 2007, when early beauty vlogging star Michelle Phan posted a seven-minute video titled “Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial.” It promised a step-by-step guide to using makeup to subtly enhance one’s features; it’s since been viewed more than 12 million times, and the natural beauty look has become a mainstay of beauty bloggers and makeup brands alike.

Over time, it’s splintered into various versions, with perhaps the most popular and ubiquitous being “no-makeup makeup.” A step beyond “natural,” its goal is a makeup look that’s basically invisible. As Cheung explains, “Natural makeup tends to enhance a person’s beauty without looking too ‘made-up,’ whereas ‘no makeup’ makeup is much more minimal and looks undetectable to most people as makeup.” (For evidence of its ubiquity, look no further than Meghan Markle’s visible freckles and barely tinted lips at her May wedding to Prince Harry.)

Approaches to these various versions of natural makeup vary; some vloggers try to achieve the results with minimal products, while others apply heavy-coverage makeup using techniques to make it more discreet. But in every case, when the goal of a tutorial is producing a result so subtle it can’t be detected, the importance is the process and the motivation behind the look more than any visual change.

So while the term “no makeup” makeup might sound absurd to the uninitiated, like “clean laundry”-scented detergent, it’s fitting for a tutorial that is barely about makeup at all. Instead, it’s a claim of subverting beauty ideals that doesn’t actually subvert anything; both the ritual and the consumption of beauty are maintained.

Take, for instance, singer Alicia Keys, who made headlines for seemingly going makeup-free in photos. She was praised for the choice, with Cosmopolitan even going as far as to call Keys a “brave soul.” Yet paradoxically, Keys’s makeup artist afterward gave interviews to both Glossier’s Into the Gloss blog and W Magazine about all the effort that went into achieving her look.

“Even down to her eyebrows, we try to keep it natural. I’ll cut individual false eyelashes and use them on the eyebrow to have that realness,” the makeup artist told Into the Gloss. For W Magazine, she detailed an elaborate skin care and diet regimen that is “the work of a good team.” Anyone can be naturally beautiful, the implication is — all it takes is genetics, acupuncture, the money to hire a professional (or several), and lots of something called “ice work.”

The “natural” beauty trend is also reflected in the rise of new brands marketing the ability to do less, not more. Glossier, of course, is their rose-tinted queen; it sells products like Cloud Paint blush, “inspired by gradient pink NYC sunsets,” and Boy Brow, a brow gel that fits perfectly into the life of someone whose imagined morning routine is “brush your teeth, brush your brows, and then maybe brush your hair.” The brand Milk, although it offers a larger range of products, is often lumped in with Glossier on social media as makeup for people who are “already beautiful.”

Perricone plays to this idea more explicitly (and expensively) with its collection of “no makeup” makeup, which it touts as “better than wearing nothing at all.” It’s a shrug of a marketing tagline, one that promises to deliver on not delivering. Fans of these types of products celebrate their extreme subtlety, gushing over a certain dewiness or just the right glow. Critics call them ineffective, a scam. (In one such video, by the vlogger Jackie Aina, she applies Glossier’s Perfect Skin Tint and says, “Where did it go, sis? I don’t know where it went. Why would I pay $26 for a clear balm?”)

Where these brands are most successful is in selling an archetype: the “Glossier girl,” for instance, who “needs three products to get ready,” as Cheung puts it. “Glossier’s real-girl knows the terms ‘beauty,’ ‘beauty product,’ and ‘beauty industry’ are synonymous, so she makes the right consumer choices,” writes Rina Nkulu in her essay “Immaterial Girls.” Once again, it’s not about the actual look achieved; the primary goal is aligning yourself with the brand to the point of full integration.

The subtlest looks are rewarded because women who seemingly don’t care about their looks are praised and envied, so long as they still meet typical definitions of beauty.

“[French women] don’t leave home without [makeup], but it’s very minimal and they pretend like they don’t. There’s a lot of shame in showing people that you take care of yourself,” says a Paris native in Eliza Brooke’s essay on the appealing myth of the “French girl.” It is not enough to look beautiful; the final product must also obscure the process so that beauty can’t be tarnished by the ugly thing called effort.

Also unexamined in the “natural makeup” concept is that even within current trends, beauty standards almost always remain within a narrow range: young, thin, Eurocentric, with perfect skin. “Obviously the notion of natural beauty is always dependent on the time period, and sort of ‘trendy’ faces and bodies. And it’s weird, and I hate saying that,” Nkulu told me over the phone.

From video to video, vlogger to vlogger, everyone wants to be naturally beautiful, but no one seems to be saying what that means or why it has to be taught — or who is determining these beauty standards in the first place. Beauty is an unwinnable game, but vloggers and brands have managed to sell us on the feeling of beauty. It can be as easy as buying the right product and applying it just so, we are promised. Once the product arrives, who can say if it’s working? If you can’t tell, then maybe that’s the point.